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The Way We Were

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the August 12, 2009 issue. Reprinted with permission.

The dangerous work of the Gatineau 'boom-men'

by Louise Schwartz

The Gatineau River is a relatively placid waterway where boaters can drift gently along with the current. However, before 1926 (when the hydroelectric project was initiated) it was full of eddies and rapids.

Local residents knew the dangers of the river. In an article published in the 1975 edition of "Up the Gatineau!", Bertha Holt (nee Wilson) reminisced about fearing the black swirling waters where eddies had eaten away the sand-bars and where there was a sheer drop into the seemingly bottomless river.

The Way We Were
Rivermen in their boats on the Gatineau River around Kirk's Ferry. Circa early 1920s. Photo courtesy of Louise Schwartz.

Nonetheless, this same river provided a cost-effective means of transport for the logging and lumbering industry.

Log drives took place on the Gatineau for over 150 years, ending in 1991 partly due to environmental concerns. Floating logs (or timber) along waterways was historically more economical than transporting by horse (or later by truck). Before the damming of the river in 1926, when the river was turbulent and difficult to navigate, it meant the log drives were risky and violent ventures.

During the winter season, logs were piled on the river and stream banks in the Gatineau's northern reaches. After the spring break-up, the log drives began and lasted until July.

Crews of men, called river drivers (or rivermen) controlled the logs with special tools such as peavies. (A peavey consists of a wooden shaft with a metal point and a hinged hook near the end.)

Life was far from easy - these men often remained all day in wet clothing in near freezing water and were followed by swarms of mosquitoes and black flies in the spring. They lived under canvas set up alongside the river. Prized skills were to be quick of foot and have good reflexes. Even with that, more than one lost their legs and even their lives.

The most well-known death was that of Samuel Bingham, a river driver who was also elected mayor of Ottawa in 1897. Called out in the middle of the night on June 16, 1905 to clear a log-jam at Cascades, he worked with his men all night. Ironically, it was not the log jam that killed him. Freeing the jam just before dawn. he headed off to Wakefield in a hired rig. Unfortu1ately, he fell asleep en route, just before his horse stopped for a drink along the riverbank. The horse lost its footing and the buggy was carried off into the water, drowning Bingham.

The Way We Were
Rivermen at work in the Gatineau River. Circa early 1920s. Photo courtesy of Louise Schwartz.

The rivermen transported themselves by six-oared boats called "pointers". These were unique vessels developed by Canadian boat builder John Cockburn as a sturdy boat for logging. Ranging from 20 to 50 feet, they possessed deeply sloping sides, a flat bottom, and pointed ends.

This allowed the craft to be propelled in either direction, which was essential for following the changing course of fast moving log booms. It was said a 40-footer could carry eight men while floating in only five inches of water.

In her "Up The Gatineau!" story, Bertha Holt described the scene she saw from the verandah at her home in Cantley. She would watch the logs come booming like thunder over the rocks as the water carried them through the rapids. Holt also wrote about the autumn clean up, when the rivermen (or "boom-men") would clear off stray logs on the river banks before freeze up. This was known as "the sweep".

Few. if any, alive today will recall logging on the river before 1926. This article may give younger generations an appreciation for the important role these rivermen played in that industry in the previous two centuries.

Information for this column is taken from various sources, which can provide readers a more detailed history. This includes articles in Volume 1 (Bertha (Wilson) Holt), Volume 3 (Helen E. Parson), and Volume 34 (David Lee) of Up the Gatineau! published by the Gatineau Valley Historical Society, Patrick Evan's "Echoes from the Past" columns from The Low Down, and "Logging on the Gatineau River" at the following link: www.gvhs.ca/gatineau/logging.html.


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